In professional basketball, the phrase “game changer” refers to a player who revolutionized how a position was played. Examples include Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and, most recently, LeBron James. Russell, Chamberlain, and Jabbar redefined the role of the center, both offensively and defensively. Before them, the paint was an easier place to score baskets. When they made the art of the blocked shot look common, they changed the way the opposing offensive was run. Michael Jordan changed what the shooting guard position looked like. Before Jordan, the stereotypical two guard was an outside shooter and back up ball handler. With Jordan, the two guards attacked the basket in the air (hence the name "Air Jordan"), thereby dominating the game. To this day, when evaluating potential future stars, we ask, "Are they the next Michael Jordan?"
For LeBron James, his game changing abilities are both rooted in both his physical attributes and in his style of play. His size, strength and speed are almost unprecedented in one player. His ability to play almost all five positions has not been seen since Magic Johnson. While Magic had the same height and size, LeBron is much more explosive and quick to play above the rim. LeBron’s versatility also changes the way the game is played. For many years, people compared him to Michael Jordan but one of the defining elements of a game changer is that it is tough to find an exact parallel. LeBron has elements of both Magic and Jordan with the shooting and passing of Larry Bird, as well as high flying abilities of Dominique Wilkins.
LeBron has also changed the game off-court. His business decisions were the subject of both media and popular scrutiny. One of his most controversial moves, also known as "The Decision", was to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in “taking his talents” to Miami to form a super team. This decision changed the free agent game. LeBron could have made more money with other teams or gone to a team where he was clearly "the man.” Instead he chose a team where he would be one of three superstars, but also a team where he thought he would win an NBA title, something that was missing in his illustrious career. His decision was rewarded this past season with a championship ring, while Miami is positioned to be a contender for years to come. His game changing decision can also be measured by the impact it has had on other players. Superstar Dwight Howard has taken a similar path by forcing a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers from the Orlando Magic in an attempt to pull together a team to rival the Heat.
So what defines a game changer in business or in general? Below are some characteristics and thoughts to consider that lead to this game changing ability:
1. Change the way the game is played for all current competitors - In business or in sports, a game changer forever alters the category in which it competes. The iPod was a game changer that changed portable music forever. With many different players and products there are out there, when something comes along that changes the environment the way Apple or LeBron did, then it is a game changer.
2. Change the game for their own benefit - In LeBron's case, he changed the way the game is played in a way that benefited himself and his team. Defence had to adjust to his unique abilities and this made it tougher for teams to compete. There are cases certainly when the game changes but not a company or player’s own benefit. Take Sony, which changed the game with their portable Walkman in the 1980's. They were blindsided by Apple’s own gamechanger, the iPod, 20 years later. They have paid the price for failing to notice this market trend. Another business case is the newspaper industry going along with the move to free content on the web, but failing as of yet to find a way to make a profit in this new game.
3. Be ready to change the game again - When LeBron or Apple changed the game, they reaped the benefits while the competition struggled to catch up. However the danger in this is thinking that just because you changed the game once, your competitors will never do the same back to you. As earlier mentioned, Sony held on to the belief that their game would never change. That worked well enough until Apple came along. In basketball, Wilt Chamberlain thought he had a golden era ahead of him when he made it to the NBA, only to be greeted by Bill Russell and his innovative defence that changed the game away from Wilt's LA Lakers and towards Russell's Boston Celtics. The takeaway is this: just because you changed the game today does not mean you can't always be striving to continue to do so for tomorrow.
Karl Moore is an associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University.
Devin Bigoness is a project director with Duke Corporate Education in the New York area.